When asked what they want from life, the vast majority of people say “happiness and peace” first and then go on to list other things such as love, success, and so on. Yet, despite this supposed focus on happiness and peace, we live in neither a happy (1) nor a peaceful (2) world. Could it be possible that we’re doing something wrong?
According to the World Happiness Report index (1), a lot of the more economically powerful countries in the world – including the U.S. (3) – are lagging behind in terms of their people’s happiness levels.
Why is that the case? Shouldn’t the people in the richest, most advanced, and most powerful countries in the world be unimaginably happier than all others? How come we can have so many opportunities at our disposal and yet be so unhappy?
On one hand, it’s highly likely that the economic disparity between people in the U.S. is a major part of the equation there (4). That’s a rather complex mass societal problem, however, and isn’t something that any one of us can fix on our own. So, what’s something we can tweak in our individual lives that can make us at least a bit happier?
Well, one good guess for something that can bring us both happiness and the aforementioned peace that often precedes it is “simplicity”. Or more precisely, simplifying our lives.
This isn’t a new notion either. Both psychologists and philosophers have been telling people for millennia that a simple life means a happy life. And yet, a lot of us still fail to understand this or, even when we do, we fail to act on it. Thankfully, more and more scientific research proves the relationship between simplicity and happiness, so, hopefully, more of us will start taking action and taming the complex chaos that is the modern Western life.
1. Having a simpler life means having more time for yourself
We’ve all heard the old saying that “Happiness comes from within”. What does that mean, however? Author Denis Waitley (5) puts it in another way:
“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.”
And in case the word “spiritual” freaks you out, let’s explain it another way – happiness requires that you give yourself the time and space to focus on the love, grace, and gratitude in your life. When we clutter our lives with work, countless tasks and obligations, as well as empty entertainment and distractions, we deny ourselves said time and space.
Leading a simpler life, however, gives us the precious bit of solitude we all need. And this isn’t “an introvert thing” either – research has shown (6) that having at least a bit of time for solitude and personal introspection is vital for everyone.
And while modern advancements have simplified our lives in many ways such as not having to work in the fields 16/7, they have also filled those now free hours of the day with other complications.
2. A simple life means having more time for those close to you too
Happiness is about more than ourselves, of course. While it is internal and it’s something that we all experience within ourselves, we’re still a social species. As such, a lot of the positive stimuli in our lives (should) come from our close family and friends. That is, if we have the time and freedom to maintain healthy relationships with them.
Sociologist Amitai Etzioli postulates in his essay Voluntary Simplicity: Characterization, Select Psychological Implications, and Societal Consequences (7) that many of us don’t have the time to “foster healthy relationships” precisely because we dedicate too much time accumulating meaningless possessions and unnecessarily complicating our lives.
Working and taking care of the home is one thing – of course, we still need to take care of ourselves. However, when you add all other distractions, we’re usually left with little to no time to meaningfully bond with our closest people.
And it’s about more than just happiness too – lots of research such as this Harvard study from 2017 (8) shows us that having healthy and fulfilling relationships with our friends and family improves our mental health and longevity as well.
The big irony here, however, is that failing to maintain healthy relationships with our closest people is what usually drives us to overcomplicate our lives with meaningless possessions, materialism, and unfulfilling hobbies.
3. Leading a simple life helps with our focus and concentration as well
Another thing simplicity gives us is focus and concentration. Having fewer distractions and complications around us allows us to focus not only on ourselves and our family but to just focus more easily in general.
This can seem trivial at first but it’s a key to achieving at least a modicum of happiness. A recent study from Stanford shows us how having to focus on multiple things at once and multitask non-stop not only slows us down but also lowers our IQ and energy levels (9).
“The researchers also found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.”
The report estimates that constantly having to split our attention decreases our productivity by ~40% and drastically increases our stress levels. This coupled with the fact that younger generations are reportedly suffering from more and more concentration problems and lack of focus (10) and the need for change becomes clear.
4. Simpler lives are healthier lives
Mental health is one thing, but physical health also often alludes us because of how needlessly complex our lives are. Do you find yourself thinking that you need to start doing something for your life – exercising more, cooking more healthy food, going for routine medical check-ups, etc. – and yet, you constantly lack time for them? You want to start getting up earlier in the morning for some cardio, yet you stay up all night scrolling through social media?
That’s just one way of how needless distractions can prevent us from improving our health. There are also the links between materialism and poor health established by studies such as this 2014 study (11) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
On the other hand, research such as this survey from the University of the Sciences in Pennsylvania (12) has determined that simplifying your lifestyle almost always leads to improved physical health. And it’s all a simple consequence of freeing up more time for taking better care of yourself.
5. Simple life = environmentally friendly life
One of the few silver linings of the current Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing mass quarantine (13) has been the positive environmental impact of it all (14). Although there have been certain negative effects as well, one of the key takeaways was that when large numbers of us simplify our lifestyles, we can cut our emissions and consumption by a lot.
This can be a big deal for the environment given how significant the impact of people in the West is, in particular (15). This may not have a direct impact on the happiness of someone with no regard for the world around them. For the majority of us, however, knowing that we live a more environmentally-friendly life and we’re quite literally on the right side of history, is a pretty nice happiness boost.
6. Less clutter means fewer things to stress you out
Simplifying your life doesn’t just mean that you’ll have time to focus on more meaningful things. It also means that you’ll have fewer things to worry about. You’ve no doubt heard the expression “becoming a slave to your possessions” – it refers to exactly that.
There are so many appliances and tools nowadays that are meant to help us with our daily lives that we often find ourselves investing more time choosing, buying, maintaining, fixing, paying off, and replacing them than the time these same appliances actually “save” us.
Sure, things such as stoves, washing machines, and refrigerators are wonderful tools with lots of benefits but how about all the other non-essential technology around us? How about all the other material possessions we tend to pile up in our cabinets and on our walls? More and more studies and reports (16) show us that the hyper-consumerism of the 21st century is not that great for our mental well-being.
7. To have a simple life also means having more money
It’s a common saying that “A simple life is a rich life” but that usually refers metaphorically to the other points above. And while that’s’ true as well, leading a simpler life also literally means having more money at your disposal.
When we’re talking about simplifying your lifestyle we don’t mean quitting your job and going off the grid, after all. Money makes the world go round and working for a living is perfectly normal. However, wasting said money on countless meaningless possessions and distractions is one of the easiest ways to waste said money.
All the steaming and TV subscriptions, home accessories, needless appliances, and unnecessarily expensive consumables we’re used to often sum up to a large 2-digit percentage of our income.
This doesn’t mean getting rid of all our possessions or entertainment either. No one is saying that going to a restaurant or on a vacation is a bad thing. But going overboard with pointless yet expensive distractions can be as disastrous to our wallets as it is to our stress levels.
So, should you ditch everything and just become a monk in a mountain sanctuaries? No, not necessarily.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of TV or a video game, having a fun hobby, or something similar. But, as with all things in life, balance is important. And the sad reality is that we all tend to focus much more on the easy-to-consume entertainment that’s in front of us rather than address the more meaningful aspects of our lives first.
Having enough time to maintain your health, to contemplate your needs and wants, and to improve your relationships – those things are shown to bring much more happiness than most of the other things we do on a daily basis.